Building rinks at Rentschler, Bushnell take skill and dollars
By Matt Brown
January 31, 2011
The holiday ice skating rink at Bushnell Park in Hartford seemed to be completed in a flash. The rink planned for Rentschler Field in East Hartford will be ready for the Whale’s HockyFest in Feb. 10.
It’s tempting to think that putting in a skating rink requires little more than digging a bit of a hole and filling it with water.
In reality, a skating rink, even one that isn’t built to regulation size for hockey, requires miles of pipe, a level site, carefully chosen freezing agents and a keen eye for maintenance.
For the folks in the business of building ice rinks, outdoor facilities like those at Bushnell and Rentschler are a good way to revive what has lately been a moribund line of work.
“It’s declining,” said Bob Crawford of the popularity of ice sports. Crawford owns and operates indoor ice rinks in Cromwell, Simsbury and Bolton. The former pro hockey player built the Bushnell rink.
“I’m excited about the outdoor rink opportunities, because we’re not going to get much opportunity in terms of structures” for indoor rinks, he said.
Like many Connecticut small business owners, Crawford said high utility costs and taxes make running indoor rinks difficult.
It can cost $5 million to build a new indoor skating facility of between 35,000 and 40,000 square feet with full locker rooms and other amenities, like warm-up rooms and ice maintenance facilities, Crawford said. Rinks run heavy-duty chillers for the ice, intense lighting and heat for warm areas.
It’s not hard to see why Crawford is concerned about utility costs at his indoor facilities.
The Bushnell rink, on the other hand, cost about $150,000, all donated by businesses, and was built by Crawford’s employees with a little help from local hockey players and some rink-building pros.
That doesn’t mean it was easy.
Building an outdoor skating rink begins with leveling a piece of ground, a feat accomplished with sand, which also provides good protection for all the piping under the ice.
The 1-inch PVC pipes are insulated and interconnected. They’re filled with either calcium chloride or a glycol solution, both of which are good for conducting cold temperatures.
The pipes — once laid around the giant, level sandbox — are connected through a header pipe to a chiller that cools the chemicals to somewhere between 5- and 10-degrees.
Over the course of about a week, water is sprayed over the pipes and the ice surface is built up. At a certain point, the ice is painted with a specialized, white, environmentally friendly paint made just for the purpose, and then another 2 inches of ice is slowly added by spraying more water onto the surface.
The white paint prevents the ice from melting on sunny days and gives it that classic ice rink look. Think Rockefeller Plaza.
When Connecticut was hit with a few inches of rain in mid-December, Crawford’s crew had to drill holes in the Bushnell rink’s sideboards to allow the rainwater to drain out.
If they hadn’t, “it will freeze, and it can get very bumpy very quickly,” Crawford said.
The Bushnell rink was Crawford’s first as a builder of rinks.
Jim Hartnett, who is building the rink at Rentschler Field, has built rinks all over the country.
Crawford doesn’t envy him building not only a large, regulation hockey rink outdoors, but building one in the middle of a major football field.
Hartnett, who runs EIS Rinks, which, appropriately, is based in Syracuse, N.Y., was hired by the Whalers as a coordinator and project manager for the rink installation at Rentschler. He has built more than 400 rinks around the country.
Right away, he knew the Whalers project would be a particular challenge.
“The field is natural grass, and no matter what we do to protect it,” it’s sensitive, unpredictable and unlikely to tolerate the rink without at least some difficulty.
Then there’s the fact that the rink has to be perfectly level despite the fact that the football field slopes about 6-degrees toward each sideline to help with drainage.
Hartnett estimated that the rink will use about 10 miles of PVC piping. It’ll be a regulation 85-foot by 200-foot NHL hockey rink with 28-foot-radius corners.
Mark Willand of the Whale put the cost of building the Rent’s rink at more than $300,000, a significant investment for Hartford’s AHL franchise. And that does not include ancillary things like generators and Zambonis that can be rented.
Hartnett has subcontracted with local framers to build the “sandbox” for the rink, with an area construction firm to pour and level the sand and with a niche firm from Texas — Ice Events — to install the tubing and create the ice. That’s the same firm that did the “Big Chill” outdoor game at Michigan Stadium and the first NL outdoor game in Buffalo.
Maintenance of the new rink will be performed by the Whale’s staff.
That rink has a specific, sporting purpose. The Bushnell rink has a purpose, too. Despite the fact that it was built in a flash and open only in December, the city claims it was used by some 20,000 people this winter.
The Bushnell rink is the kind of attraction cities love to offer.
“It takes a lot of elbow grease. It’s incredibly complex,” said David Panagore, the city’s COO and director of development services.
But what the city gets, in the case of the open-air rink at Bushnell Park, is a kind of economic development gravy. It’s a limited engagement that demands that visitors come to the city at specific times. In marketing the city, it’s the equivalent of, “But wait. There’s more” or “Now, for a limited time.”